The Transcendentalist Trail

By Brooks, Iris | The World and I, November 2017 | Go to article overview

The Transcendentalist Trail


Brooks, Iris, The World and I


"We can never have enough of nature." --Henry David Thoreau

Does walking allow you to think about life on a deeper level? Years before I discovered "walking meditation" or the American transcendentalist movement, I found solace in nature, where walking allowed my mind to be free of other constraints. I was reminded of this during a recent trip to New England, where I explore the trail of transcendentalists (beginning in Concord, Massachusetts at the intersection of Walden and Thoreau Streets), connecting with the natural world both inside and outside in celebration of Henry David Thoreau's bicentennial birthday.

WHO WERE THE TRANSCENDENTALISTS?

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived." --Henry David Thoreau

The transcendentalists believed all living things were bound together and humans were essentially good. Concerned with happiness and making the world a better place, these New England-based writers and philosophers connected deeply with nature and humanity, rebelling against the norms of 19th-century America. "When the individual learns how to listen to the soul, there can be no limit to his goodness and ability to help the larger community," reads the signage at the Fruitlands Museum, regarding the awakening of transcendentalism. Among the leading figures in this movement were Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, each of whom gathered in Concord, the epicenter of American literature in the mid-19th-century. Emerson wrote: "We will walk on our own feet; we will work with our own hands; we will speak our own minds ..."

Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862), born on the Thoreau Farm in Concord, MA. 200 years ago, was a philosopher, environmentalist, and writer who filled his journals with remarkable observations. After graduation from Harvard University in 1837, this third generation Concordian set up his own school in Concord, and then, seeking solitude after his brother's death, moved to the woods for two years, two months, and two days (1845-1847). He lived in a small, simple cabin he built for $28 dollars. It was here his reflections about life and mindful existence were captured in his journals, which he locked away in his desk in a cottage he left open. His careful notations on when specific flowers bloomed, other botanical observations, and at what point the pond froze, have become important to modern day scientists studying climate change. Thoreau's writing from living a simple and deliberate life is still a call for everyone to live better lives, with awareness of one's actions and their consequences.

Self-reliance and simplicity were key elements to Thoreau during his time in the woods, when he called trees his friends. " No weather interfered fatally with my walks . . . for I frequently tramped eight or ten miles through the deepest snow to keep an appointment with a beech tree, or a yellow-birch, or an old acquaintance among the pines." (Excerpted from Walden, published in 1854)

But Thoreau's interest in self-cultivation stretched beyond his ambles in the woods and his journal writing. He read many languages: Latin, Greek, French, German and Italian as well as some Spanish and Portuguese. And his interest in Asian texts led him to translations of works about Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. Thoreau learned about Native American culture and language, studying an Abenaki-English dictionary and through his work on exhibit at the Concord Museum, I discover the original, Native American name for the river in Concord was an Algonkian word "Musketaquid," translated as "grass ground river."

Harmonizing with nature and living in the moment were important to Thoreau and the other Transcendentalists, who focused on literary independence, becoming involved in social reform movements, embodying a divine spirituality guided by intuition and imagination through nature and art. …

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